Borders

There is one question I have struggled to answer since I have been here, one that every person has asked. It is the most basic question you would ask someone who has moved to a new country and started a new job, but still, I never come up with a satisfying answer.

So, how is India?

Diwali Lights 2

{Diwali – The Festival of Lights}

Shanti Bhavan is a haven, isolated from the rest of India by large expanses of highway, fields, and broken dirt road. My job is the most rewarding and exhausting position I have ever held. By 6:30am I am at the school building, helping the students prepare the morning news and roaming the halls to tell sleepy children to hurry up and get to their classrooms for prep time. By 4pm I am gulping my third cup of chai, stirring in the instant coffee that keeps me awake enough to wrestle with the small children or play soccer during PT time. By 10pm I am shooing students out of my office, ready to collapse in bed (usually falling asleep halfway through an episode of Game of Thrones). By the time the weekend comes, the two days a week I am free to leave this beautiful campus, all I want to do is sleep and spend unscheduled time with the kids. So I guess you could say India is pretty exhausting.

20141116_113

{Silk scarves in Mysore}

I have never crossed as many borders as I did when I came here: across oceans, continents, and countries. Here, I frequently  cross the threshold of the school gates and weave between villages and cities. The more I see of this country, the more I want to love it. I do love it–the colors, the music, the dances, the kindness, and the understanding that there should always be dancing. But I’ve found that when I leave the walls of Shanti Bhavan, I feel a certain frustration.

Frustration when people stare at you everywhere you go. Sometimes they laugh, sometimes they look angry, sometimes they smile. Frustration when the majority of times you eat something outside of school you get sick. Our most recent excursion to Mysore involved the most colorful market of spices, jewelry, silks, oils, and hanging flowers. But I also spent half of it in bed, clutching my aching stomach. Frustration when you finally feel self-sufficient, adept at traversing public transportation…and the bus driver waves happily at you as he drives past, leaving you standing at the bus station after you have been waiting for an hour, counting the cows and throwing stones for entertainment. The frustration subsides with little victories, little moments of belonging, and then bubbles again when you come so close to feeling like you can live somewhere the way others do, and having that sense of belonging dashed. So I guess you could say India is sometimes frustrating.

Farmer and cow

{A farmer in rural Tamil Nadu}

Outside the iron gates of Shanti Bhavan, I am acutely reminded that I am foreign. Inside the gates, we have become such an integral part of the school’s functioning that I never feel like an ‘outsider’ here. But the borders aren’t gone. Every day I navigate the blurry boundaries between ‘traditional’ and ‘progressive’ cultures, between teacher and administrator, between good cop and disciplinarian, between boss and friend.

Sometimes when I close my eyes I imagine mountains, rivers, quiet streets and fall leaves. Sometimes India doesn’t feel like home. But then there are moments when I am hanging my laundry, when the air is crisp and the sky is orange. Sometimes it is pure, like a tangerine. Sometimes it is rich, like a blood-orange. Sometimes it is subtle, like a grapefruit. Every evening it is beautiful. Handing out medals after the school sports day, while music played and children danced and the sky was streaked with purple….I felt more at home and at peace than I ever did in Washington D.C. So I guess you could say India is a little confusing.

20141116_123 20141115_084 20141115_082{Devaraja market in Mysore}

I could say that India is a blur of color, that it comes in waves of sounds and smells and cows and people and joy and frustration. But that wouldn’t be any different from what every person before me has said about India. I can’t capture it in words and I no longer feel the need to categorize my experience in neat boxes. India is India. Just like every single person in every other place on earth experiences, some days are good and some are bad. Some moments are beautiful (like when fifteen girls pull at your hair, paint your face and hands, and wrap you in silks to celebrate a day of dancing and amazing food or you find yourself cutting snowflakes out of newspaper with second graders) and others are painful (like when you have a migraine and are nauseous and have been stuck in Bangalore traffic for over two hours with an ambulance blaring on the way to the hospital).

Perhaps I will always be balancing on the border between India and home, my teetering feet the only things keeping me between full acceptance and painful nostalgia. The truth is I have seen so little of this country, but have also developed an intimate connection to a part of India few get to see. After four months, I still don’t know when it is better to cross borders—keeping your identities on either side distinct—and when is it better to blur them. To ignore the differences between myself and those around me would make me ignorant, but to focus on them might create borders where there need not be.

20141115_010 20141115_018 20141115_021 20141115_02220141115_056{This woman taught us how to roll incense}

My stomach might not always agree with the food and my idea of home might not look like India…but it definitely looks like this. So I guess you could say India is pretty wonderful.

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